Polls are taxing my patience

Polls are everywhere at the moment.

They’ve been around for a long time, but for me they’ve jumped the shark/nuked the fridge. Use has been superseded by overuse.

The US elections are an obvious, recent cause. I am amazed by the amount of polls taking place. Yesterday’s FiveThirtyEight poll update shows that there were 11 national polls and 25 state polls. For that one day alone.

All the polls will be using different samples, methodologies and weighting factors, and will be producing different results. How useful can all these be? Nate Silver doesn’t think much of them, hence his predictive model.

On the one hand polls can be incredibly misleading. Look at the 1992 British election, where people were ashamed to admit they voted Tory. Labour were well ahead in the polls, yet the Conservatives won. And there are still concerns that the Bradley effect could hand the current election to McCain despite Obama’s current lead.

And on the other hand they can also be influencing. A candidate may move ahead in a poll. This is reported as a surge in popularity. People gravitate towards the likely winner (whether it’s Rupert Murdoch or Mondeo Man) and so a temporary surge can be converted into a substantial lead. All without the candidate doing anything of substance.

However, I believe that while these polls are overused, they do at least serve a purpose. I’m less convinced by the glut of polling options appearing online at the moment.

WordPress, for instance, has incorporated Polldaddy into the service. So, I could choose to serve a poll to my readers if I wished to.

However, I do not.

I’m 100% in favour of developing systems and introducing new options, but I see little use in polls. They are a vague nod to interactivity, but they will produce little utility.

I can see how they can of use to some blogs with a large readership who spend a lot of time on the site constructing thoughtful arguments.

But for the majority of blogs (mine included), people skim and pass through. If they see a box, they might tick it. But how would that be useful to me? I would be grateful to my readers for participating, but I wouldn’t trust any results that come out of it.

Polls give an unwarranted aura of science or respectability. Ticking a box is no better than making a comment. In fact, it is worse, since it requires less effort to think. Simply choose a pre-conceived option and on you go.

Take the BBC’s polls for instance. The BBC are in a constant battle to maintain relevance (for the record, I love the BBC), and interactivity is a way in which they try to do so. But as a result, you end up with a surfeit of pointless noise.

I’m thinking less about the 33,000 comments and counting regarding “Sachsgate” (spEak You’re bRanes must think it has gone to heaven) and more about the fluffy questions of the day or the completely illogical player-rater on football games (I can go and rate Ashley Cole 1/10 on every match even though I won’t be following it), What benefit is being accrued here – either to the user or to the BBC?

So I am making a one person stand against polls. I won’t be using them, and I won’t be participating in them. May they rest in pieces.

sk

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cfox74/

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